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The Prayer of Djivan Gasparyan

The master of duduk didn’t just play like a god. He defined duduk

July 12, 2021  |  by Anush Ter-Khachatryan


People live their lives. But, sometimes, life lives people. And it fully lived Djivan Gasparyan, the master of duduk, whose fingers and lips would ally with the Armenian instrument made of apricot wood and play prayers of grief, strength, love, but most of all — hope.  


Life lived the eight-year-old boy who had his first encounter with his instrument at the old movie theater in the village of Solak, while watching a silent movie accompanied by duduk. For him — starring duduk. When he left the magical blackout of the theatre, fascinated by duduk, he didn’t have a hunch of what his life had in its pocket. “We were orphaned kids,” said Djivan, reminiscing about the eight-year-old boy he once was. “Who was our master? Who was our Lord? We grew up without a mom or dad. We mingled in a thousand types of society.” Then, the masterless eight-year-old boy became the master of duduk. 


He played for Queen Elizabeth II, he played for the Shah of Persia, he played for the chronology of Soviet rulers — Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev — one of whom, the Man of Steel, melted from the touching sounds of the great musician.


There is always that little, transparent moment, that unexpected turn of events that great artists don’t look for but always find. And when Brian Eno, the celebrated composer, record producer, and a child of the West, came to visit Soviet Moscow in 1988, he stumbled upon one of Djivan’s records, I Will Not Be Sad in This World, which he would later license and issue outside of the Soviet Union on his Opal Records. Struck by the record which offered lamentation but also unabashed insistence on hope, Eno brought Djivan and duduk to the West. 


And so began the gentle Armenian musician’s journey of becoming a cult personality and a pop icon. He created his first international album, Moon Shines at Night, produced by Michael Brook. He had a 15-day recording session at pop artist Peter Gabriel’s house, doing duduk improvisations of rock music. He also collaborated with Gabriel on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s 1988 religious drama, his fifteen-year labor of love, The Last Temptation of Christ. Djivan’s sounds of duduk, with the superb curation from Gabriel, conveyed the inner torments and doubts of the messiah. 


Then came Gladiator. One day the film composer Hans Zimmer had his unexpected turn of events when receiving a call from his old friend Micheal Brook. Brook was calling to say that Djivan Gasparyan, for whom Zimmer was composing a score with an unspoken hope that “If you build it, he will come,” would in fact be in Los Angeles. So the great master of duduk worked with Zimmer to create a musical quilt for the Moroccan scenes of Gladiator


“He is a god in his own country. He has his own vodka named after him. And if you drink enough of his vodka, the ice will melt and his face is on the inside of the label. You actually get to see his face,” Zimmer said with a childlike twinkle in his eye that only meant reverence toward Gasparyan. “So our communication was drinking vodka until we could see his face and him playing like a god.” 


Djivan went on to collaborate with Sting, Hossein Alizadeh, Brian May, Lionel Richie, Luigi Cinque, David Sylvian, and so many others, yet he never surpassed his own humility, even when the great American-Armenian author William Saroyan informed him: “This is not music; this is a prayer.” Not even when he, a grandson of Genocide survivors, who grew up with his grandmother’s stories of grief taken from the cruel desert and his grandfather’s stories of courage from his days in General Andranik’s troops, received a standing ovation from the Turkish audience of ten thousand. He worked with the celebrated and the obscure with equal penchant to find the soulfulness in music.  


“It is a matter of controlling the dynamics by means of lips, fingers and half-fingers,” was all the greatest master would say about duduk. Then he’d create a whole world in the one-octave range of the wooden instrument, with the craving that the eight-year old boy felt in the darkness of that movie theater, with the soulfulness he plucked from his grandmother’s stories and with the courage he took from the troops of Andranik — a matter of lips, fingers, half fingers, and the Armenian soul sliding through them. 


Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.

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